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Curing Fear of Snakes - Press Item - Long

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Posted by Wes von Papinešu on November 27, 1999 at 18:50:20:

MORNING CALL (Allentown, Pennsylvania) 05 September 99 Hsssssss-Terical? - L.V. Researcher Seeks To Treat People Rattled By Fear Of Snakes (Rosa Salter)
So, you're out in the garden, happily mulching the azalea bushes, when you wonder -- who ran the hose along the back border of the flower bed?
Then, the "hose" squirms.
And you beat a hasty retreat to the garage.
A case of garter-snake-a-phobia?
More likely just plain old surprise, says Dr. Lloyd Williams, psychology professor at Lehigh University.
If you're like most people, Williams says, you'll soon return, curious, and inspect the snake more closely. You may decide to leave it alone or move it to a more out-of-the-way spot.
If you're unfamiliar with snakes, you may do a little research to find out whether this one's poisonous or otherwise dangerous, or find an expert to tell you what to do next.
In short, you'll overcome your initial fear with a perfectly rational response.
But, for some people, the sight of a snake, or even a picture of a snake, evokes anything but rational thought.
"There's a fancy Greek word for it. It's called orphidiophobia," says Williams, a psychologist who's been studying people's irrational fears for the last two decades and now is seeking volunteers for a new research project on treating snake phobia.
People with orphidiophobia, Williams says, will break out into a cold sweat when confronted by a snake. Their heart will race, they'll gasp for breath, and they may even flee in panic.
They may avoid not only snakes themselves but also places and activities where there's even the slimmest chance of seeing one of the scaly, slithery creatures.
A hike in the woods, a dip in a lake, a visit to a friend's farm, the reptile house at the zoo -- all are likely to provoke extreme anxiety.
"People who don't have snake phobia think it can't be a very big problem because people don't see snakes very often," Williams explained.
"But people have nightmares over this. They can't go on picnics. They can't get a golf ball out of the rough because they think a snake might be there. ... They can't look at magazines because there might be a picture of a snake. They can't watch television because a snake might appear on the screen.
"It tortures people's lives."
But the good news, Williams says, is that people with this particular phobia can be treated and often easily cured with behavioral therapy.
"The success rates are very high. I would conservatively state that 90 percent of people who undergo treatment are substantially helped. ... And that's with only a few hours of treatment," he says.
Sound too good to be true? Ask Williams how it's done, and he isn't very forthcoming on the treatment methods he's testing.
That, he says, is only because he doesn't want to jeopardize the results of the research he's conducting with graduate-student colleagues Peizhong Li and Kevin Reilly.
But Williams does say the treatment generally involves gradually desensitizing the phobic person to the stimulus of a snake.
"It's based on having the person tackle and master the kind of things they are afraid of, so we would have the person approach, touch and handle a live snake," Williams says.
That, of course, is often easier said than done by phobic people, the professor acknowledges.
"But it turns out that once a person has done all that, the fear has gone away," he says.
Psychologists class snake phobia as a simple phobia, meaning that a person has an exaggerated fear response to a specific place or situation. Simple phobias are distinguished from panic attacks, which can occur without a specific stimulus, seemingly out of the blue.
There are literally hundreds of simple phobias -- common ones include fear of blood, fear of flying and fear of heights. Agoraphobia, or the fear of open spaces and/or losing control, more closely resembles panic.
Still, psychologists know little about the origin of phobias, Williams says. Common sense might say they arise from previous negative experiences with the feared object or experience, but that's not necessarily true of the fear of snakes, he says.
"Some people do have a direct experience with a snake that's bad, but that's very rare," he notes. "Most people will say, `I've been afraid of snakes as long as I can remember, and I don't know why.' "
Cultural conditioning may be what that makes some people afraid of snakes, according to Williams. And in some ways, people's squeamishness about the creatures may be a good thing for the species.
Because some snakes are poisonous, being afraid of them enough to avoid them might confer a survival advantage, some experts believe.
But Williams doesn't think humans have any deep-rooted biological predisposition to being snake-phobic.
"I like to distinguish between fear on the one hand, and prudence on the other," he explained. "If you see a snake, and you don't know much about snakes, it's prudent to be a little afraid and back away.
"But when the fear is out of proportion to the objective danger, that's when we start talking about a phobia. It's a matter of degree."
Ironically, Williams says, phobic people usually know their fear is unreasonable. But they feel powerless to stop it.
"That's one of the reasons they're so humiliated by their phobia," he says.
Because phobic people tend to be ashamed of their fear, he adds, no one really knows how many people suffer from snake phobia.
In general, though, phobias are quite common. They are the top reason people seek treatment from psychologists, ranking ahead of depression and addiction problems, he says.
About 20 million people, or 1 in 11, suffer from some kind of phobia at some time in their lives, according to the the Anxiety Disorders Association in Rockville, Md. The group estimates that snake phobia affects between 10 and 20 percent of all people treated for phobias.
Many people don't seek treatment because they don't know it's available, so the number of snake phobics may be higher, according to Williams.
Unlike some phobias, snake phobia usually doesn't require the use of medication, which can ease panic attacks for some, Williams says.
Medication can help is if it enables a phobic person to undergo therapy which he or she would be otherwise too anxious to stand, says Dr. David Kupfer of Falls Church, Va., a psychologist specializing in anxiety disorders.
The drugs usually used are anti-anxiety medications such as Xanax or Valium or a class of anti-depressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, which can keep anxiety from escalating into panic in some people, he says.
The treatment methods Williams is testing, however, don't include drugs. And they don't purposefully try to provoke uncomfortable levels of anxiety in phobic people, he says.
"You begin where they are," he explains. "If the person says, `You have a snake in that room? No way, I'm not going in that room!' ... and if we have to start 10 feet outside the room, then that's where we'll start.
"We don't want people to be stressed out."
Williams and his colleagues hope to recruit about 30 participants for the study. They have worked with about a half-dozen people so far.
Participants are asked to fill out questionnaires that ask about their thoughts about snakes, previous experiences with snakes, their level of confidence in dealing with snakes, and, if their fear is alleviated, to what they attribute the improvement.
Williams, who studied spider phobia as a graduate student and has extensively studied agoraphobia while at Lehigh, plans to publish the results of the current study in a scholarly journal.
He has published previous studies in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, and Behaviour Research and Therapy.
Psychologists like to study snake phobia because it is considered a good model for simple phobias and insights gained in research may be used in the treatment of many kinds of phobias, Williams says.
Often, substantial improvement or even eradication of snake phobia can be accomplished in one or two approximately one-hour sessions -- and without a single moment spent lying on a couch, Williams says.
"There are always some people we don't help, or help slowly, but the vast majority is amenable to treatment," he notes.
For one research subject, the study has caused a major change in her her quality of life.
Linda, a 49-year-old manager whose last name is being withheld so as not to compromise study results, sought treatment for her fear of snakes after she and her husband began building their dream house on a rural property outside Martins Creek.
"There are two streams on the property, and I was out walking one day and there was a little snake curled up in front of me, and I just lost it," she relates. "I was screaming, and my heart was pounding and I ran and ran. ... I bet I could have walked on water I ran so fast."
When her husband calmly informed her another day that there was a four-foot snake in the garage, she knew she had to get help.
By the end of one session, the woman says, she was able to touch a snake. She could even confront one at a follow-up session a few weeks later -- even though at first she could barely stand to be 15 feet away from a four-foot python enclosed inside a glass aquarium.
"I ended up picking it up and putting it on the floor and letting it wiggle and putting it back in the aquarium again," she says.
"But I did draw the line at holding it in my lap."
Linda thinks her fear, which extended to images of snakes in movies and magazines, was instilled during her childhood by her mother.
"I would have lived with this for the rest of my life if I hadn't been moving to the country," she says. "Here I'm building a dream home, and all of a sudden there's a cloud over it. I don't even want to be there.
"I'm amazed at the difference. I'm not at all like I was," she concludes. "I wouldn't have believed it."
Information about Lehigh University's Snake Phobia Project is available at 610-758-4525.

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